Thousands of workers in the Sultanate are victims of a modern-day system that sees them ruthlessly exploited: overworked, poorly housed, barely fed and paid virtually nothing. Alvin Thomas lifts the lid on the scandal that still exists in our country.
Modern day slavery is real.
Thousands of expats in the Sultanate are victims of a system the world thought had been abolished more than 150 years ago.
The stories of these migrant workers – those who came to the country with high hopes and dreams – may disturb you unless you’re one of them.
The struggles of Nishant, Siddharth, Iqbal, and Sameer (names changed to protect identity) began late last year when they landed at the Oman airport.
Promised jobs by the recruiting agencies back in their hometowns in exchange for large sums of money, the four expats – the former two from India and the latter two from Pakistan – made their way into this country.
On arrival, they were told that they’d be representing a manpower company, and that they would have to serve contracts with multiple clients for as long as they were required to – a condition they weren’t too fazed by considering they were in it for the “easy money”.
But the money never came – not even after eight months of work.
They cannot leave either: their passports are in the custody of the company that they are representing. Moreover, they say that they cannot head back home as failures, at least not until they pay off their debts.
There’s no time to lament over their misfortune, though. Because, even as we interview them, they’re busy digging trenches to lay internet cables for a contracting company operating on the requirements of the telecom industry in Oman.
Siddharth, one of the exploited expats who hails from the state of Tamil Nadu in India, tells us: “I left my home and family to work and make their lives better at the expense of mine.
“But now, I cannot even buy a single meal. I’m fearing for my life. I work in this heat with no protection or clean drinking water. We’re at the mercy of our contractors and engineers who, out of pity, sometimes buy us food and water.
“We’re forever indebted to them,” he says, before bursting into tears. Sameer quickly steps in to calm him down. This level of bond between Indian and Pakistani colleagues is unseen of today. But, struggles such as these bring the people closer together.
Misery, after all, does not discriminate.
Sameer goes on to say: “We keep following up with our arbab (boss) for our salaries. But he says that the payments aren’t enough to keep the company afloat, and threatens to have us jailed if we were to go and complain or take any action against him.
“He has our passports, contracts, and even our bank card. All we have in our wallets is our residence card,” he adds.
These are ordeals that several migrant workers – and in some cases, even Omanis – go through daily.
What is the Wage Protection System?
But the Oman government has recognised the issue that is at hand, and has come up with a solution – and a rather ingenious one at that: The Wage Protection System (WPS).
The WPS is an electronic salary transfer system that allows companies in Oman to pay workers’ wages through banks or financial institutions approved and authorised to provide the service. The registered companies are monitored for discrepancies.
In short, the bank acts as a go-between – a governing body that regulates the timely payment of the agreed wages – between the employer and employee, and it covers companies across all sectors that are registered with the Ministry of Manpower (MoM).
An MoM official who declined to be named, says: “Implementing this system in Oman was an easy decision although a lot of work has gone into it.
“We had studied all the necessary conditions so that when it went live, it would actually protect the rights of workers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman or an Omani or an expat. It’s helping everyone.
“The idea is that every company should register themselves with us through the Central Bank of Oman (CBO). This process also includes filling in the employee information, which includes the salary details.
“Once that’s done, the employer must then select a registered bank that can dispense all the money to the employee. Everything is tracked, and so we know if a company isn’t paying its workers on time,” he adds.
The WPS isn’t exclusive to the Sultanate, though. The system has been in place across all GCC countries for several years now. Qatar, for instance, implemented the system in 2015, and the United Arab Emirates adopted it in 2016.
The shortfalls of the Wage protection system
While all that spells well for workers in Oman, there lingers the greatest question of them all: is the WPS working in Oman?
According to high-profile social worker P.M. Jabir, the WPS is a “welcome move from the government”. But he has seen certain employers work around the new system using vile tactics.
“Unfortunately, there are certain employers who either keep the ATM cards with them or take the money back from the workers once they withdraw the salary. There needs to be a system to stop this practice.”
So, the answer to our question is justifiably quite complex, and to comprehend the situation completely, we had to take a trip to an ATM vestibule in Al Ghubra that has gained notoriety over the past few months for being a loophole in this newly-implemented system.
It happens on the second day of every month, a day after all the employees of a construction firm have been paid their salaries in full.
As per the new law, the company has fulfilled its duty to pay its staff so no discrepancies are flagged.
However, by 6pm, a full-sized bus arrives loaded with migrant blue-collar workers – all tired after a long day of work on the site. They’re soon queued up in front of the ATM machine, and a public relations officer (PRO) guides them to it one by one.
What happens next beggars belief: the PRO diligently asks every worker to withdraw their salaries completely. He then takes a cut from it, which according to our sources, will then be transferred back to the company or kept by the PRO himself.
The workers are finally left with only a portion of the salary that they’d earned.
This is currently only one of the loopholes that hampers the WPS system.
No money to buy food or water
During our investigation, we learn that the labourers Nishant, Siddharth, Iqbal, and Sameer all face situations like this.
Their bank cards have been confiscated by their PRO, and they don’t have access to them. They also claim that he withdraws all their salaries, leaving them with nothing – not a single baisa.
This is backed by the Omani lead engineer who is operating on the site. He goes on to tell us: “We pity the people who are made to work like this. The employers don’t see these people as humans. Instead, they’re made to slog until, eventually, their heart gives away.
“They sign with a company, filled with hope and ambition, but go back in a coffin. That’s the situation in some of the companies here. A lot of these blue-collar workers from South Asia are mistreated by employers up to a point where I would never suggest that they come here.”
“I pay for their food every day. From the (name withheld) hypermarket nearby, I buy them a packet of kubus (Arabic bread), vegetable curry, and curd. It’s money from my pocket but it’s keeping them alive. They’re my brothers, and they deserve to experience the basic rights – access to food and water.
“You shouldn’t steal from the poor. That’s not what our culture and religion teaches us. We do so much every year – collect Zakat (mandatory charity), send money to poor countries, and donate on the boxes placed in supermarkets – but do we look around us at the people around us who are in need?”
As per the engineer, the labourers are paid a total of RO150, from which the manpower company originally withholds RO60 for housing. This means they must receive RO90 per month for their expenses but there’s no sign of any payment to date.
“If this persists, our company will be forced to act against the company, or maybe even terminate their services. But, skilled labour is hard to come by so we’re still hanging onto them for our manpower resources,” he adds.
Be that as it may, the four expats cannot leave the country since their passports have been confiscated. This is against the law too. According to the ministerial decision 2/2006 issued by the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) dated November 6, 2006, withholding an employee’s passport is against the interest of fair labour.
This is also the case for daily-wage workers in Oman. Though illegal, several workers have been seen lurking around the streets of Ruwi, Ghala, and Ghubra in search of work for a day’s meal.
These workers can charge anywhere between RO7 and RO13 for a whole day but their sponsor can take a cut from it daily. In short, the rich get richer while the poor gets poorer.
This is the condition of Rashid ul Haq*, a Pakistani expat in Oman.
Originally employed as a domestic worker by his sponsor, Rashid came to the country to tend to the gardening and other home needs of an Omani family. But, as time went by, the sponsor realised that he didn’t require a gardener and cleaner daily.
So, he cut his salary by half and asked him to branch out and look for other work on the side.
We then ask him why he would rather stay in Oman than return home to Pakistan. He answers: “It’s better to stay here and earn RO80 to RO100 than earn nothing back there. By staying here, I can send at least Rs 19,000 to my wife and mother.”
Fearing his master, Rashid refuses to speak to us on record any further. But before ending our conversation, he points out that he pays RO2 for every RO5 he makes doing chores outside the house.
This means his wage of RO15 drops to RO9 daily… if the employer decides to pay him the amount.
But it’s not just small-scale companies, manpower agencies, and local sponsors that are delaying salaries or breaking the laws. Several medium- and high-level companies are now reportedly suffering from cash shortages that have left plenty of their staff to work with little to no pay at all for months.
The pains of white-collar workers
Our investigation reveals that a leading engineering firm in Oman hasn’t paid its staff in three months. Furthermore, one of the employees of the company wrote us an upsetting email: “For the first time this year, there’s a delay in receiving salaries on time in my company.
“The last salary paid to us was in April and we haven’t received anything since. Due to the tough economic conditions in the country, we know that the company is facing payment issues from clients.”
In reality, his company is just one among several that are facing payment issues from clients, and have gone on to delay employee salaries.
Y received multiple counts from employees stating that their companies were struggling because clients were taking anywhere between three to six months to pay their dues – mostly owing to the aftermath of the oil crisis of 2014.
The email then read: “But, many of the employees in the company are living with their families here, and I have reached a stage where I am not able to fulfill their basic needs.
“Due to this delay, I haven’t paid my house rent and my kids’ school fee. Since the landlord understands our situation, he has not submitted my cheques at the bank yet.
“So, I am not sure if the Wage Protection System has helped expat employees living in Oman. The government rule says salaries must be paid before the 7th of every month and if the system has already been implemented, why is the ministry not monitoring my company?” he asks.
“This is just not my plight alone. This is the case of several other workers whose salaries have been delayed for months.”
While the employee’s plight is one of grave concern, his questions about the effectiveness of the system stays valid.
The repercussions of not paying a worker’s salary
But all of these are still considered criminal offences, and companies and sponsors caught committing such acts will incur heavy punishment, including blacklisting and fines.
Our source at the Royal Oman Police (ROP) says a company flouting the laws could face charges, and pay a fine of RO100 for every employee that they’ve not paid for the month, irrespective of whether the WPS has caught the offence or not.
“So, if you haven’t paid 10 employees, the fine goes up to RO1,000. However, the fines can be doubled if the companies repeat the offence. That’s what the Article 51 of Chapter One, Part Four of the Labour Law states,” he explains.
In an earlier interaction with Y, Salim bin Said al Badi, the director general of labour welfare at the MoM, said: “The ministry has deployed a specialised team to conduct field checks on private sector companies to make sure they follow the Labour Law.
“The ministry’s policy and goal is to regulate the labour market and enhance the relationship between employers and employees.”
Quoting the Labour Law, Al Badi added: “Delaying any payment for more than extra seven days is illegal, and the ministry fines the violator. When it comes to holidays, every worker is entitled to an annual leave with full salary (for no less than 30 days).
Al Badi then went on to stress how the ministry has intensified checks on companies.
“The e-portal introduced by the ministry has facilitated everybody to file a complaint over Labour Law violations. If a company does not comply with the law and does not correct its violations, the file gets transferred to the Public Prosecution,” he adds.
Filing a complaint is a relatively easy task too – and it doesn’t matter if you’re an Omani or non-Omani. All you need to do is head to the MoM website at manpower.gov.om and search for the ‘e-services’ tab. Under that, you’ll find the section dedicated to labour complaints.
While the services of the website are being used extensively, our source at the MoM points out: “Expats can be a bit shy or scared to come across with their grievances. It’s not something that will help them in the long run. If you’re facing a problem now, it’s best to sort it out soon.
“They [expats] feel that their employer could use their complaint against them. But the website clearly mentions that they cannot ‘terminate or take any action against the employee for submitting a complaint to the MoM.”
As iron-clad as the laws may be, this is affecting every possible sector in the market. And workers are now calling out for the WPS – irrespective of its effectiveness – to be implemented across all sectors.
The struggles of freelancers
Bader al Lawati, an Omani celebrity food photographer and a Nikon instructor, relates an incident that he faced recently: “I had just started work with a new high-end restaurant in Oman who wanted me for a whole range of photography services.
“A contract was signed and the clauses were mentioned clearly, as per the law.
“As part of that, I was also involved in strategic planning for the brand. I had executed some of our ideas for them, and as promised, also handed over to them the photographs that they had requested.
“But after the handing over, there was no word from them about the payments. So, I invariably tried following up with the manager of the restaurant. At first, he would ignore my calls, but would then fall victim to calls from my second phone number.
“He would then go on to tell me that he was busy with meetings. So, after a few weeks, I visited the restaurant. But, to my astonishment, he scurried away from the premises to avoid a confrontation.
“This went on and on… for a period of 10 months,” he says before adding that he had to threaten to take them to court before the payment of RO150 was made.
“Therefore, we require some form of governance that takes care of the payments of freelancers. But, I think that a simplified legal procedure that is timely would work as well.
“There are several companies that take advantage of people like us.
“But since we’re signing a contract, I think we’d really like to have some form of protection from clients who clearly go rogue after handing over the product or task,” he says before ending our conversation.
New law to protect employees
The government’s WPS may only be seeing a few results today but the ministry hasn’t given up on its efforts to patch any gap that it may have left open.
As of this week, the MoM has issued a ministerial decision that any employer filing a complaint against an absconding expat employee must also submit a salary certificate and a three months’ bank statement to prove that the person didn’t flee due to the non-payment of their salary.
Also, if a company files more than five complaints in one month or more than ten complaints in a year, then they will be subject to inspections to ensure that it is complying with the labour law.
This will undeniably help shed the light on the circumstances under which the worker fled, and perhaps also help in the rescue of other unpaid employees in the company.
As of today, however, all the workers we interviewed remain unpaid and penniless.
Sameer sums up his – and his friends’ situations by saying: “We hear a lot of steps being taken by the government to help us employees get our basic rights. But there’ll always be a loophole in it. And the employer will find that and use it against us.
“Our only real solace comes from our devotion to Allah. He’s watching over us and our families. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings who are living life and trying to live a decent life.
“But the day will come when the oppressor will be answerable for all his actions. And when it comes, I just hope he will be forgiven. Because, no one should suffer like us.”